- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Not-The-Gallup-Poll of the Week
Eric Gagne and Mariano Rivera arrived for work at the same ballpark (Dodger Stadium) last week. Earlier in the week, so did Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome (at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park). Which got us to thinking. ...
If you needed one closer right now, to save a big game, would you hand the ball to Gagne or Rivera?
And as Thome roared by 400 homers last week, at age 33, and Griffey hit No. 500, at age 34, we wondered: Who will wind up with more home runs -- Griffey or Thome?
So we took a little informal poll. And the results were verrrrrry interesting:
PICK YOUR CLOSER
Gagne or Mariano? What a question. We started out trying to poll hitters on this topic. Bad idea. Because it quickly became clear, three players into the survey, that hitters would rather have periodontic surgery than face either one of them. Ever.
Phillies quote machine Doug Glanville summed up the feelings of hitters everywhere, saying: "That's like comparing whether you'd like to be swallowed whole by an anaconda or thrown into a pit with black widow spiders. It just depends on where your allergies lie."
So if the hitters weren't going to help us, we went to Plan B -- and asked nine scouts. The results might amaze you, considering that Rivera is the greatest October closer of all time and isn't exactly falling apart (leading the league with 27 saves, and a 0.96 ERA). But Gagne won in a landslide, collecting eight of nine votes.
Among the reasons: "Rivera's cutter is legendary, but Gagne has three pitches he makes the best hitters in baseball look silly with." ... "If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have taken Mariano, but today, it's Gagne. More weapons." ... "Bugs Bunny stuff." ... "He has a 94-97 mph fastball with good command, a 70-74 mph downer curve ball with huge speed change from his fastball and then the 84-87 mph nasty change that dives like the best split in the league. Fifteen hits all year. Three walks since May 1. Pitches with no runners on. And it all adds up to no chance."
The panel acknowledged that Rivera has carved a fabulous career out of throwing one pitch -- and the hitters still haven't figured out how to hit it. And the lone scout voting for Rivera said that even though Gagne is younger, he would bet on Rivera to pitch longer "because of the looseness of his arm." But it's hard to argue with 81 saves in a row. In fact, it's just about impossible.
PICK YOUR SLUGGER
On one hand, it might seem like a lock that Griffey is going to end his career with more homers than Thome. Griffey is, after all, just 10 months older than Thome and nearly 100 homers ahead of him.
But is it really that cut and dried? Only Barry Bonds has a better lifetime home run ratio among active players than Thome (one every 13.5 AB). As recently as Opening Day 2001, Thome was more than 200 homers behind Griffey -- and has outhomered him since, 171-62. And just once, since he became a regular player, has Thome missed more than 15 games in a season.
So in some ways, it's as easy to see Thome reaching 600 homers as it is to see Griffey joining that club. And three members of our panel agreed. But six took the safe way out.
The guys who picked Griffey assumed equal health and longevity, saying: "The new ballpark in Philly is such a launching pad that Jim should have a huge advantage with regard to the stadiums. But I think Griffey is two seasons ahead at this point and will hang on." ... "I see (Griffey) being a consistent 30-plus homer type over the next four or five years, when he's not running into any walls and/or diving for balls. Thome can get to 50 homers easy, but it's tough to catch up if both stay healthy."
But the skeptics weren't convinced Griffey's run of good health would last. And one of them was just an unabashed believer in Thome who called him "a special person who'll probably do special things before it's all over."
What we found, though, was that even the people who took Griffey felt a little uncomfortable about it. As one of them put it, "My heart says Thome. My brain tells me Griffey, if he wants to keep playing. Good question. Tough call."
Could the Cubs make a surprise entry into the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes? It's no secret they've been frustrated with Corey Patterson. They've got a slew of prospects they can deal. And when Cubs special assistant Grady Little showed up to watch the Royals play the Braves last week, it aroused major curiosity in more than a few baseball circles.
But an official of one club that checked into it says there is "no chance" Beltran will wind up getting traded to the Cubs.
Officials of two clubs that have been in regular touch with Royals GM Allard Baird wonder if he'll get enough value for Beltran if he remains dug in on getting both a young third baseman and a young catcher in return.
"I don't see why they have to lock in on those two spots," said one executive. "Why not get one of them filled and take a pitcher with a high ceiling if they can get one? You can always take pitching. That's our philosophy. I'd rather have more quality in return for a guy like that than fool around just trying to fill two specific positions."
When Baird was dangling Paul Byrd before the deadline two years ago, he seemed to get locked in on Toronto's Orlando Hudson -- and wound up not getting him, or anyone else. This year, it appears, his first choice at third base is Oakland prospect Mark Teahan. But to make a deal with Oakland and get precisely what he's looking for, Baird would need to involve a third team. Which gets tricky and time-consuming.
One scout we surveyed ranks Teahan as an intriguing offensive player but generally rates him below the two best upper-level third-base prospects in the minor leagues, the Mets' David Wright and the Angels' Dallas MacPherson..
"He's definitely not Dallas MacPherson, but I do like his swing," the scout said. "He can get a little slow in his lower half, but it looks like he's got a feel for the bat. When I saw him, he stayed within himself and had a good concept at the plate. And he's a left-handed hitter, which always helps."
Meanwhile, the more the Yankees hear the Red Sox are chasing Beltran, the bigger push they're prepared to make. The centerpiece of their offer would be catching prospect Dioner Navarro. But two scouts we surveyed called Navarro "overrated."
"There's sure a lot of hype on that guy, but I still have a lot of reservations," said one scout. "Physically, he's got the tools. No question about that. But he doesn't do a lot of things instinctively that I like to see in a catcher. If the mental makeup connects with the physical tools, they've got a good player. But to be honest, the more I've seen him, the less I like him."
Anaheim had some initial interest in Beltran. But all indications are that they've backed off. The Angels are now window-shopping for bullpen help in case Troy Percival and Brendan Donnelly don't bounce back.
Florida also appears to have cooled in its pursuit of Beltran. The Marlins had talked about moving Juan Pierre to left for Beltran and shifting Jeff Conine to first, where he would have shared time with Hee Seop Choi. But clubs that have spoken with Florida say the Fish seem reluctant to take on a big contract -- at least for now. So that knocks the Marlins out on Beltran, who makes $9 million a year.
The Marlins are still looking for more bullpen pieces, even after dealing for Billy Koch. It's believed they were in on Jason Grimsley. There are indications they have interest in several Orioles relievers. And they've contacted a number of other teams. Florida is dangling outfielder Abraham Nunez, and the Marlins will talk about their overflow of shortstop and pitching prospects.
At one point, the Marlins were also frantically searching for either a starting catcher or a left-handed hitter to platoon with Mike Redmond. Now, it appears, they've just about given up on finding someone who fits. But an official of one club that has talked with them says there's still one name left on their shopping list -- Tampa Bay's Toby Hall.
Many baseball people have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why the Orioles traded rocket-launching pitching prospect Denny Bautista for 36-year-old setup man Jason Grimsley. But an executive of a team that has been talking with Baltimore says this trade looks like "the kind of deal you make to accumulate parts, so you can make another trade."
Good call. Several clubs report the Orioles are now actively looking to move their glut of relief pitchers to pick up a starting pitcher they can keep beyond this season.
Buddy Groom appears to be the most available bullpen package on their shelves. But other clubs said they also have talked, at times, about dealing closer Jorge Julio and highly regarded left-handed B.J. Ryan. ("I'd line up to take that guy if they want to move him," said one front-office man of Ryan.)
It wouldn't even be a shock if the Orioles spun Grimsley to a new destination, even though they signed him to a one-year extension before announcing the deal.
Teams in contact with the Braves say they've put corner infielders on their back burner and are now targeting left-handed relievers. And Houston also is searching for a left-hander. Their assorted shopping lists are believed to include Groom and Ryan from Baltimore, Mike Myers and Ron Villone">Ron Villone from Seattle, Colorado's Jeff Fassero, and Tampa Bay's Trever Miller.
A few weeks ago, the Expos seemed more likely to re-sign shortstop Orlando Cabrera than trade him. But their attempts to sign him to a deal, somewhere in the neighborhood of Jose Vidro's four-year $30-million extension, have gone nowhere. So the Expos have been telling clubs that if they can't get Cabrera signed by early July, they'll see what they can get if they deal him.
Unlike Vidro, Cabrera doesn't appear as hot to stay onboard without knowing where the Expos will play next year and who their owner, GM and manager will be. There's a zero-percent chance he'll have the answers to all of those questions by mid-July. So look for Montreal to move him. The Cubs almost certainly would add him to their shortstop shopping list if Alex Gonzalez has problems returning from his broken wrist.
The Mariners still aren't ready to start any clearance sales. But if they ever open for business, it will be a whopper. An official of one team that has spoken with them reports they'll be willing to talk about "anybody but Ichiro."
The Barry Zito rumors seem to keep on coming out of Oakland. But an official of one team that inquired about him reports: "As of last night, they're not trading Barry Zito." At least not during the season.
Since May 16, the Royals actually have a better record (16-14) than the Dodgers (15-17). Which is amazing, considering that about 12 Royals have essentially been walking trade rumors all that time. But it's also possible that's no accident.
"Maybe we've reached a point," said Desi Relaford, "where everyone knows they may be here or they may not, so we've played with kind of a carefree attitude, and whatever happens, happens."
But the never-ending rebuilding in Kansas City has taken its toll in this clubhouse. On Sunday, just the day before the Royals began the latest franchise-renewal movement by shipping Jason Grimsley to Baltimore, Grimsley told Rumblings it's time this franchise settled, once and for all, on a core group of players it can keep and construct a team around.
"When I was with the Yankees," Grimsley said, "they had that core of players who have always been there, who you can build around. And that's the key to winning. You look at Florida last year. They had all those guys who have played with each other, liked each other and trusted each other. And that's how you win. They don't have that in Kansas City. They don't have that core."
But one keeper they do have is Zack Greinke, whom one scout said "has more of an understanding of what it takes to pitch in the big leagues than any 20-year-old I've ever seen." And his manager, Tony Pena, doesn't disagree.
"Dwight Gooden was great at 20, but he came to the big leagues with two pitches," Pena said. "This kid has four pitches. But his pitchability is unbelievable. Who taught this kid how to add and subtract to his fastball? Whoever did, they did a great job."
After watching Greinke for the first time, Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen compared him to a young Greg Maddux. While Pena said he hates to compare a guy this young to someone like Maddux, he did concede: "As far as the way he carries himself on the field, he looks a lot like him."
A lot of people have been calling Denny Bautista, whom the Royals got for Grimsley, a "steal." But Bautista has been traded twice now in 11 months (the previous time for Jeff Conine). So he's far from a sure thing, despite supersonic stuff.
"You have to like his arm," said one scout. "But he has a lot of moving parts, so he's had command issues. He's got above-average stuff across the board, but I'm not convinced he's going to dominate in the big leagues. He's been traded two times at such a young age, which says there's a lack of definition in what he's telling you he is. I think his best chance to succeed is out of the bullpen. That's the best fit for guys like that, with that blow-guys-away mentality."
Devil Rays Rumblings
Hot as they may be, the Devil Rays are not going to win the AL East. But while this might be the most shocking turnaround of the century -- from a team that took 40 games to win two in a row -- it is not a fluke. One scout who has followed them sums them up this way:
"Carl Crawford is, far and away, the igniter on that team. He pressures opposing players with his speed. And he won't ever go into a slump, because he runs a 3.8 to first base."
"They made some good decisions to put that pitching staff back together. They sent (Chad) Gaudin out to get him built up to come back and start. They sent (Jesus) Colome and (Jorge) Sosa out to get them straightened out, and they've really helped the back end of the bullpen. They figured out you have to use Trever Miller to start an inning. They got (Victor) Zambrano to back off his velocity a little to get him more command. And they got (Mark) Hendrickson to throw more two-seamers and fewer cutters. He's throwing those two-seamers down and away consistently, and he's getting a lot more ground-ball outs."
"Colome's turnaround has been really impressive. But he's always shown tremendous stuff. And when he throws strikes, right-handed hitters don't see him. You've got to give a lot of credit to (Triple-A pitching coach) Joe Coleman and (Triple-A manager) Bill Evers. Coleman does a nice job with their young pitchers. And Evers has done a great job for a lot of years, and he's been totally unheralded."
Meanwhile, right over the horizon, the megatalented B.J. Upton will be in Tampa Bay before September to take over shortstop. But we keep hearing scouts say they "just don't trust him" defensively.
"He makes some plays," said one scout. "He's athletic, and he's fun to watch. But when you see him bobble routine ground balls, backhand balls he should get in front of and make some lazy throws, it tells me he doesn't have the mental makeup to handle that position. He'll make some tremendous plays. But he becomes a different player when he has to make a play. Hey, I hope I'm wrong, because he's such a gifted kid, and he's got a live bat. But I'd move him to center field."
Really Rumbling And Grumbling
Barry Bonds has quietly changed agents again -- leaving Scott Boras and returning to the Beverly Hills Sports Council, which had represented him for years until he switched to Boras just before his last contract.
It might be time to rank Giants ace Jason Schmidt as the best-kept secret in baseball. Over the last two seasons, he leads every pitcher in the big leagues in ERA (2.32), winning percentage (26-7, .788), shutouts (five) and opponents batting average (.193). And he's tied with Javier Vazquez for the lead in strikeouts (311). But how often do you hear Schmidt's name when the talk turns to the dominators on the mound? Not enough.
Well, it's time that changed. After his one-hitter Sunday against the Red Sox, one scout called Schmidt "the best pitcher in the major leagues."
"That game against the Red Sox was the best-pitched game I've seen this year," the scout said. "He was absolutely unhittable -- 95 (mph) on the black on both sides of the plate, an unhittable change and a useable slider. He commands the zone for all nine innings. And the hitters can't pick up the ball. Even when he threw a pitch in a good hitting zone, they didn't touch him. And that's a hell of a lineup he dominated."
If the Astros don't right their ship, they're going to have some tough decisions to make. And none is tougher than what to do about Craig Biggio. A scout who has watched the Astros lately thinks it's time to get Biggio out of center field -- and maybe back into the infield, if he's going to stay with Houston.
"I love Craig Biggio, but he's really hurting them in center," the scout said. "You just see so many balls that look like they should be caught coming off the bat and fall in front of him."
ERA -- Clemens 2.84, Pavano 2.88
Opponents batting avg. -- Clemens .222, Pavano .224
Opponents slugging pct. -- Clemens .356, Pavano .354
But before people start dreaming of Pavano as the No. 1 starter he was once projected to be when Boston traded him for Pedro Martinez, one NL front-office man says: "What he really is, is a great No. 3 or No. 4. He's pitching now like a No. 1 or 2, but that's because he doesn't have to be a No. 1 or 2 in that rotation."
Four more Cuban players have defected in the last month -- a list topped by the best young Cuban position player in years, 20-year-old first baseman Kendry Morales. But teams we've surveyed are a little unsure about the other three. So their agent, Bill Rego, has lined up a July 6-7 showcase for them in Torreon, Mexico.
Catcher-DH Barabaro Canizares -- who once hit cleanup behind Morales for the Industriales team in Havana -- is the biggest name. The others are first baseman Mitchel Abreu and pitcher Yosandy Ibanez.
The Marlins felt all Billy Koch needed was a change of scenery. But an official of another club that passed on him isn't so sure.
"We just didn't feel he was a quality guy anymore," the official said. "He's a power pitcher who never learned to pitch, and now he no longer has the power stuff he used to have."
It's only two weeks since the draft, and already, 12 of the 30 first-round picks have signed. It's no secret that clubs have been (ahem) conferring with the commissioner's office to establish an unofficial slotting system for first-round bonuses. And one scouting director believes that many agents have decided it's not worth fighting that system.
"I think agents are realizing the dollars are down in every aspect of the sport," he said. "In the past, if a kid sat out long enough, he'd end up getting more money. Now I think people are realizing that if they sit out all summer, the dollars will be no different in August, so they're better off getting out there and playing."
Of course, you'll notice no Scott Boras first-rounders have signed yet. So clearly, this "acceptance" doesn't apply to everyone.
"Well," the scouting director laughed, "there might be one disbeliever."
It's tough to hit 500 homers if you don't get started early. And Ken Griffey Jr. is one of only five active players who had hit 150 homers by age 25 (i.e., before his 26th birthday). Can you name the other four?
ANSWER: Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Gonzalez. If you guessed Albert Pujols, he's a lock. But he hasn't reached 150 or age 25 yet.
Eric Gagne or Mariano Rivera with the game on the line? Griffey or Thome for most career homers? Survey says ...